Conservatives are all but declaring victory on their defense of gun rights, exuding confidence as calls for aggressive controls in the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre have given way to scaled-back expectations to firearm restrictions in Congress.
"They can call me crazy and whatever else they want, but NRA's nearly 5 million members and America's 100 million gun owners will not back down — not now, not ever," an emboldened Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told conservatives gathered at an annual conference. He pointedly ignored President Barack Obama's most restrictive proposals in his speech, using it instead to assail the one that has the potential of getting approved — a near-universal background check for gun owners.
It's a sign that LaPierre — and others at the Conservative Political Action Conference — thinks the nation's largest pro-gun lobby has successfully beaten back the most limiting proposals.
Indeed, a bipartisan deal on near-universal background checks for firearms buyers remains a real possibility. And Congress still could pass a ban on high-capacity magazines. But Democrats haven't been able to muster enough support, even within their own ranks, to push through an assault weapons ban.
That's by far the most restrictive of the series of changes Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have sought following the Connecticut school shooting that killed 26 children and educators and a series of deadly shootings in Aurora, Colo., Oak Creek, Wis., and elsewhere.
In the hallways of the Conservative Political Action Conference, many activists echoed LaPierre. Few of them talked with urgency about the outcome of an assault weapons ban or some of the other proposed restrictions. And many exuded a quiet confidence that a divided Congress won't act on even the more modest proposal to implement mandatory background checks.
"I don't think it's going to get done," said Randy Smith, a California technology company owner. "There's no way."
Mel Wilcox, a medical professor from Birmingham, Ala., who owns guns and hunts, said he "doesn't really have a problem" with the mandatory background checks but said he didn't expect Congress to act. "I don't think they'll ever push something through," he said.
Several activists pointed to simple arithmetic to explain their confidence in limited gun measures: Republicans remain adamantly opposed to restrictions to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and several Senate Democrats are facing re-election next year in rural states populated with many gun owners.
"There are too many Democrats who know they won't last long," said William Temple, a tea party member from Brunswick, Ga.
Connor Martin, Marine veteran and a gun owner from Bay City, Wis., said the upcoming re-election campaigns of several Senate Democrats, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, would make it extremely difficult for Democrats to muster enough votes to pass the changes.
It's clear where Republicans in Congress stand on the measures.
Every Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against bills the panel approved this week on background checks and the assault weapons ban. A third measure toughening federal penalties against illegal gun trafficking won committee passage last week with the support of only one Republican — Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top GOP committee member. The other seven GOP senators opposed it. A fourth bill, slightly increasing federal aid for school safety, passed the committee with bipartisan support.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he will decide soon how to bring the measures to the Senate floor, where debate is expected next month.
In his speech, LaPierre called the proposal for mandatory background checks for gun owners a "placebo" that would not make schools or streets safer but would lead to a registration of lawful gun owners — lists that he said could be made public in local newspapers.
"In the end, there are only two reasons for government to create that federal registry of gun owners: to tax them or to take them," he said.
LaPierre ridiculed Biden's suggestion during a Facebook town last month that women like his wife, Jill, could fire "two blasts" from a shotgun if they felt threatened.
"Have they lost their minds over at the White House?" LaPierre said, noting that Biden has had armed protection in the Senate and as vice president. "You keep your advice. We'll keep our guns."
Support for the NRA was omnipresent at the conference. Many participants wore red NRA stickers on their coats with the motto, "Stand and Fight," and an NRA booth in the conference's exhibit hall offered bright-orange bags with pamphlets and bumper stickers carrying the group's message. The sign above the booth underscored the NRA's heft: "I'm a bitter gun owner and I vote."
Prominent Republicans have expressed support from the podium.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told attendees that the path forward for the GOP was "rooted in respect for the Constitution and respect for the individual. Part of that respect is allowing Americans to freely exercise one of their most basic rights, the right to bear arms."
The White House expressed support Friday that some compromise could be found. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One en route to Chicago that nothing proposed by Obama would "take a firearm away from a law-abiding citizen."
"There's plenty of common ground for us to seize, to move forward, that would reduce gun violence in our communities," Earnest said.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
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